I often talk about how much I leaned on my own parents after Hugh’s TBI, and how much my family and friends helped, but my young teenage daughters, Anna and Mary, lived through every day with me, and together we took care of Hugh as best we could. Our relationship shifted wildly over the first six months of Hugh’s recovery, and there were times I leaned heavily on them for support.
When a parent is as severely injured as Hugh was, older children can become caregivers at times, like Anna and Mary did. They helped out while under enormous strain. Recently, I asked Mary and Anna who comforted them most after their father was injured. Mary answered, “It had to do with energy. I gravitated to very specific people: Kelly King, a family friend who had been our neighbor since second grade; Charlotte, a nurse in the ICU who has one of the most open, caring and calming presences I have ever encountered (although I have not seen her since she watched over my dad in the first couple of weeks, that is still how I remember her today); and my mom’s sister Mary O’Brien who is a nurse by profession. They all have a soft and silent strength about them that can fill a room, a quality I envied and wanted to take on myself. I just wanted to be close to them, to float on their energy, a kind of energy I could not muster inside. In that place, there was a sense that everything would work out okay.”
Anna leaned heavily on her best friend, C.J. “I’d call her late at night and just go on and on about everything,” she said. “She would always pick up and listen. I think she knew that was all I needed. I tried to stay emotionally detached as much as possible to stay strong, too.”
When I asked them what helped them cope, Mary and Anna had the same response: each other.
Referring to the first time they were brought to the hospital after the accident, Anna said to me, “When you first picked us up on the car ride to the hospital, you told us that Dad was in an accident. I remember Mary and I looked at each other and we just knew we were there for each other. We had always done everything together, and we would do this together, too. We coped in really different ways, but Mary really saved me. Knowing that I wasn’t alone in the whole situation, that there was someone going through the same thing as me during the same time of my life, was extremely comforting. No one else could understand what was happening in the same way, no one else could talk as candidly about the situation as we could together.”
Mary agreed. “My sister is my other half and makes me feel whole. A sense of wholeness goes a long way, and just being together got me through. That being said, there were times when we were both so broken that we could not put together each other’s pieces. We dealt with the situation very differently emotionally, and that both helped and hindered our ability to lift each other up. That’s how sisters are, but at the end of the day, we were in it together and knew we always would be.”
After all these years, I know a lot about my own children but wondered what still lingered, and I asked them what, if anything, do they still struggle with today?
Anna, who is fairly good at disguising her emotions, surprised me most. She admitted,
“I worry too much and always think the worst. When someone is late, I think car wreck and hospital. I feel guilty if I ever part on bad terms, I try to make sure everyone knows I love them in case it’s the last time they’ll hear it. I still haven’t gotten used to riding a bike again.
“It has made me more cautious and anxious, but it has also taught me to try to love more deeply, to be gracious, and do the best with what I have. I try to be fully present in every moment and make it a good one, because you have it and it may be the last. It’s what kick-started my fascination with the capacity for the body to heal itself. It was so inspiring to see someone overcome such a hurdle. From sitting on Dad’s arm to try and straighten it, to paddling out in head high waves, I’m still in awe of where he has been and where he is now. He has such a zest for life, a sense of humor, and a love that he expresses more deeply than before. How many kids can say they have witnessed love and devotion on that level? I think it has really strengthened our family. I feel like I may not have been close with you and dad if it hadn’t happened.”
Mary remembered back to high school. “At school, when someone had an early dismissal for a vacation or a dentist appointment, the person picking up a student would report to the front office where the secretary would call the classroom on an intercom phone. As a student taking a quiz or listening to a presentation, we loved when the phone would ring. It distracted the teacher enough to give us a minute to whisper or pass notes. We would cross our fingers that our name would be called for early dismissal. After the accident, the sound of the classroom phone would send chills and fear down my body. I stopped crossing my fingers and turning to my best friend to answer her question about my latest crush; I sat silently in stillness knowing it would be for me, and that I would have to leave to face another emergency. I held my breath for those thirty seconds, which all of a sudden felt like half an hour. In my adult life, I still struggle to answer the phone if I don’t know the number on the caller ID. My nerves get jumpy when I have voicemails waiting, and I never really want to listen to them.
“Mostly, the whole experience manifests itself in my fear of the unknown. I constantly step back and watch myself, give reality checks as needed, and make sure I'm seeing everything as it is. It can be exhausting sometimes. I sometimes wish I could let that part go, but I have what feels like an instinctual need to keep myself from being blindsided again.
“On the positive side, I have gained the ability to somehow remain calm in stressful situations (even if only on the outside). More importantly, I have learned how priceless it is to be present in a moment, to be grateful for what I have, to express my love for others, and my passion with the world. I take life as it comes, but not always free of fear. I combat that with love. Lots and lots of love.”